Have you been putting off your dental cleaning? Did you schedule an appointment but get anxious just thinking about it?
Experiencing a fear of dentists is more common than you think. Researcher Peter Milgrom, DDS, of the Dental Fears Research Clinic at University of Washington at Seattle, and author of Treating Fearful Dental Patients, reports the following statistics:
- About 5-8% of Americans avoid oral exams because of fear of going to the dentist
- Another 20% only go to the dentist when absolutely necessary, such as when they have a toothache
What Causes Dental Phobia or Dental Anxiety?
Dr. Milgrom, who specializes in treating patients who are scared of the dentist, estimates that about ⅔ of these patients had negative early experiences with dentists. The other ⅓ in this statistic have other psychological conditions for which fear of the dentist is an unpleasant side effect. These conditions include:
- Mood disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Victims of domestic abuse or child abuse
There are other factors that can contribute to dental anxiety or phobia:
- Fear of pain. In a survey of people who had not seen a dentist in 12 months, 64% said a fear of pain was their main reason. Similar to Dr. Milgrom’s findings, these individuals may have had a painful dental visit at one point, or have heard other people describing “horror stories” of dental appointments that went bad.
- Fear of needles and dental anesthesia. Some people are afraid of needles and other sharp-looking objects including dental tools. They may be afraid that pain medication will not be effective if they require dental surgery. Others are bothered by the potential side effects of anesthetics – dizziness, fainting, nausea, or the “fat lip” feeling when anesthetics are applied to the mouth area.
- Feelings of helplessness or loss of control. When lying back in the dentist’s chair, it can be hard to see what is going on around you. On top of that, you often can’t speak while the dentist or dental hygienist is performing an exam or other procedure in your mouth. This inability to see and communicate gives some people a strong feeling of vulnerability, and this can lead to feelings of anxiety.
- Embarrassment. Many people are self-conscious about having a dentist or hygienist look inside their mouths during dental procedures. Individuals may be embarrassed about crooked or discolored teeth, or their breath odor. For others the dental exam simply feels like an invasion of their personal space.
What Are the Consequences of Dental Anxiety?
People who are afraid of the dentist often postpone dental care as long as possible. As a result, they often suffer from many common dental problems rather than having them treated.
Over time, a lack of dental treatment can increase the risk for conditions such as gum disease, tooth loss and discolored or damaged teeth. Dental anxiety or phobia can also contribute to other problems that affect overall health and quality of life:
- Embarrassment or social withdrawal
- Poor overall health
- Poor oral health that contributes to heart disease or lung infections
- Untreated dental conditions that contribute to lower life expectancy
What Can You Do About Dental Anxiety?
There are many things that patients and dentists alike can do to manage or overcome the symptoms of dental phobia or anxiety.
What Patients Can Do
- Prepare ahead of time. Talk to your dentist and/or hygienist before your treatment begins. Have them describe what will happen during your appointment and show you the instruments they use and how they work.
- Communicate during the treatment. Once your procedure begins, ask your dentist to describe what he or she is doing as it is happening. Agree on a signal such as raising your hand if you need to say something. For example, you may need to let your dentist know if you are in pain or discomfort or if you need to ask a question.
- Use a buddy system. Enlist a family member or friend who can be you dentist buddy. Go to appointments together to give each other moral support.
- Distract yourself. Listen to music on headphones or earbuds if allowed. Find a dentist with a TV screen in the exam room. That can help you pass the time while your smile is being worked on.
- Relaxation techniques. If you feel anxious at any point during your appointment, remember that slow, deep breathing can help you feel calm.
- Visit a mental health professional. Conditions like depression and anxiety can contribute to a fear of going to the dentists. If you have an anxiety disorder or other psychological condition, your mental health provider may help you establish an effective plan for dealing with anxiety so that you can get the dental care you need.
What Dentists Can Do
- Create a nonthreatening environment. Something as simple as dental office decor can ease patient anxiety. The waiting room and exam rooms should be comfortable and welcoming. Consider decorating the walls with pleasant artwork instead of clinical medical charts.
- Help patients prepare. If possible, offer to talk to patients in an office setting before going into the exam room. Ask patients about any problems or questions they have before getting started. Give them a preview of what will happen so the patient knows what to expect. Tell patients to alert you if they feel any pain or discomfort at any time during treatment.
- Engage patients during treatment. Clearly explain each step of a procedure as it happens, what it should feel like and about how long it will last. Give patients the opportunity to let you know if they feel uncomfortable or have a question.
- Customize pain management. Many dentists and other health professionals assume that all patients have the same pain threshold. However, some research indicates that psychological stress can affect how people experience pain. For patients with dental phobia or anxiety, talk with them ahead of time about the correct type and amount of anesthetic or other pain management options.
At Excel Dental, Drs. Davis and Matthews understand that many patients can feel anxious about going to the dentist.
If you have any fear about your next exam or treatment, or if you have had a negative experience in the past, please let us know. We are happy to answer your questions and address your concerns before, during, and after your visit with us.
Everyone on our staff is dedicated to giving you the most pleasant dental experience possible, along with effective treatments and helpful patient education to help you and your family Smile Healthy!